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This blog is dedicated to my friend KW – a Maid of Kent, rather than a Kentish Maid.

South of the river……

When I have reason to leave my home  county of Essex, as often as not it is to head southwards “over the bridge”, to the fair county of Kent. I am often struck by how foreign “south of the river” feels to one raised on the northern shores of the Thames. (I once spent a year of my life living in Eltham, SE9. It really did feel like an exile to a foreign land). 

But London suburbs aside, the Kent countryside has always seemed beautiful but  slightly alien to me. Yes, the weather often varies each side of the river. And the views from the car window subtly change, driving south. I had attributed this strange thing to geography and geology. Kent countryside is far more rolling than the wide Essex flatlands. And dig down in Essex and you’ll find London clay, but underneath Kent soil you’ll find  mainly chalk and sandstone. So you’d expect a difference in flora and fauna.

However, as so often happens, a book I chanced to read changed my view of things. “How England Made the English” by Harry Mount is about the topography of these islands. (A lovely word:  topography looks at the natural and man-made things in a landscape). Mount writes that the underlying topography of a place shapes the characteristics of the people that live there. Its subtitle is: “From why we drive on the left to why we don’t talk to our neighbours”. 

So, as you can imagine, it’s a slightly whacky read, but it’s very absorbing. Pertinently, one of the “topological” things discussed by Mount might actually explain the different feel of the two counties. And that thing  is – gavelkind.

And what is Gavelkind?

It’s an interesting Anglo-Saxon legal word. It describes a form of inheritance, widespread in England before the Norman Conquest. If a person had not left a physical will, the land owned by the deceased would be shared between all of his sons. It differed fundamentally from the legal form of inheritance enforced by the Normans after the Conquest. Norman custom was the system of primogeniture – where, in the absence of a will, the land would be inherited solely by the eldest son.


So, following the Norman Conquest, the laws of inheritance changed in England from predominantly based on gavelkind to a system of primogeniture. However – not so in Kent !

A group of men from the county of Kent met with French William at Swanscombe in Kent.  They asked, in return for peace and the laying down of their arms, that they be allowed to continue with their historic ways of local government, including that of gavelkind. 

Monument to the event  in Swanscombe, Kent

William agreed, perhaps because it was early on in the process of subduing the native English, and why seek trouble, if a small concession helps you avoid it?  Of course, this concession by William explains the derivation of the county of Kent motto – “Invicta” – unconquered.

Men of Kent and Kentish Men

If you were born in Kent, you have probably already been enthusiastically involved in the hot debate on whether you are a Kentish man or maiden, or a man (or maiden) of Kent. There are multiple definitions which attempt to explain what differentiates the two descriptions. These make hard reading for this non-Kent resident. However, the difference in title does seem to feature  on which side of the river Medway you were born. The most common view seems to be: born west of the Medway, you’re a man or maiden of Kent, if east, you’re a Kentish man or maiden.  

And what’s this to do with our idea of gavelkind, you may ask? Well, according to some accounts, it is far more prestigious to be a Kentish Man. Because they stood their ground with The Conqueror and retained their ancient rights, including the right of gavelkind. Sadly, the Kentish men east of the Medway did not show the same determination, and so must forever defer in courage to their braver neighbours. 

The lie of the land

After that little diversion, we return to my earlier question of why gavelkind makes Kent look so different from Essex. Well, it’s to do with field sizes. Under primogeniture, if only the eldest son inherits the farm, the farm stays intact. But under gavelkind, a farm might have to be split between several sons. This might mean that a field might have to be divided. Since “fences make good neighbours”, hedges would be planted to mark the boundaries between each son’s holding, and so the original large field would now consist of several smaller fields.

Harry Mount suggests that the view from a plane window, whilst making a low descent into one of the London airports, would even  today give you an idea of these topological differences between English counties.

Interestingly, it might also bring to mind how small field sizes  in France seem to the eye, when flying over its terrain, compared to the monster fields you find in most of England. It is surely no coincidence that French laws of inheritance are based on the Napoleonic Code, where property is split between all offspring, and not solely inherited by the eldest son.

It’s the law!

When researching this blog, I was struck by how quirky – at least to our modern eyes- these old laws are. I am busy collecting examples for future blogs. Gavelkind has its own ifs, ands or buts. I was particularly struck by the following:

“Lands in gavelkind, if the tenant commits felony, and submits to the judgment of the law, are not forfeited, nor do they escheat to the king or other lord of whom they are holden……”

Which roughly means, if the father breaks the law, he can be punished, but it doesn’t impact his sons’ inheritance.

Or, as an old rhyme has it-

The father to the bough

And the son to the plough

The bough being – the gibbet !

Hiding in plain sight

The story of gavelkind is still there, written in the fields.  And of course, its story is still shown proudly, as the motto on the shield of Kent:

p.s  The white horse on the shield? Do you remember your school history lessons about the Angles, Saxons and…….Jutes?  Before the Norman Conquest, Kent was settled by Jutes (from Jutland, north Germany), and one of their battle symbols was – a white horse. In fact, gavelkind derives from ancient Jutish law. You’re welcome.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. KW

    I love this!!!!!
    Thank you!

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